Head that wears crown
Sir Robert Walpole can be considered the first Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1721 to 1742, although the term Prime Minister was not really in vogue at that time. Nevertheless, the War of Jenkins’s Ear (1739 – 1742) against Spain was inconclusive and was characterised with significant casualties and not much objective results. This led to his generally poor election results in 1741 and he was forced to resign by popular as well as royal acclaim and kicked upstairs into the House of Lords. Spencer Compton, Earl of Wilmington was the next Prime Minister between 1742-3 and died in office. In addition, his premiership was also influenced by foreign affairs and the War of the Austrian Succession, with the British forces fighting the armies of Prussia, France, and Spain.
The next Prime Minister to find himself in trouble was Thomas Pelham-Holles, Duke of Newcastle, who was in power twice during 1754-6 and again 1757-62. He led Britain into the Seven Years war with France. Early defeats lead to his resignation during his first term, although he managed to get back into power. Again he had to resign in 1762 over the financing of the war in Europe. The next PM, William Cavendish, Duke of Devonshire 1756-7, was faced with the Minorca issue and squabbles over the defence of Hannover which led to his resignation. The next PM, John Stuart, Earl of Bute 1762-3 managed to finish the Seven Year war, but the Scottish rebellion and his Scottish nationality played against him. He too had to resign and was succeeded by George Grenville 1763-5, who laid the roots of the American War of Independence. The next PM was Charles Wentworth, Marquess of Rockingham 1765-6 and in 1782., succeeded by the Earl of Chatham, William Pitt 'The Elder' 1766-8, who was one of the few PM’s who concentrated on foreign policy and did a very good job of it too!
Augustus Henry Fitzroy, Duke of Grafton 1767-70 was a fascinating character who spent his time in office trying to resolve the American taxation issue. He was also trying hard to keep the news of his affairs out of the newspapers and as we all know, the latter are like Rotweilers when they sniff a politician caught with his pants down. At the end, he was forced to resign, but at least he had fun. The next chap, Lord North 1770-82, had a torrid time with his wars and ended up losing America. The one after next was William Bentinck, Duke of Portland 1783 and 1807-9, who ended up in trouble over the Peninsular War. The next PM was one of the brightest PM’s in the history of parliamentary rule. William Pitt 'The Younger' 1783-1801 and 1804-6 presided over momentous times including the French revolution, Napoleonic wars, Union with Ireland and the reconstruction of the economy after the American War of Independence. Still, Napoleon’s defeat of Russia and Austria in 1805 was a huge personal blow to him. Henry Addington 1801-4, was the PM in the middle of William Pitt the Younger’s reign, and he was forced to resign after he made a lopsided peace treaty with France. William Wyndam Grenville, Lord Grenville 1806-7, was the next Prime Minister, mainly known for abolishing slavery, but he struggled with the problems of trying to make peace with France and Catholic emancipation. Spencer Perceval 1809-12, has the dubious honour of being the only British Prime Minister to be assassinated by a disgruntled businessman, but prior to his assassination, he suffered because of the ongoing miasma around the Napoleonic war.
George Canning 1827, who died in office after only 119 days was forced to deal with the ending of the Napoleonic wars and had considerable issues relating to the deployment of troops, South America and the French influence thereof and Spain/Portugal. Skipping one prime minister who was in office for a very short period as well, we reach Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington 1828-30, the hero of the Napoleonic Wars at Waterloo. While he did not have any problems during his Prime Ministership due to foreign wars, he did have to handle a spot of internal disorder from the Chartist rebellion. We will skip over Earl Grey, the next prime minister, who besides laying down the roots of parliamentary and democratic reform is mainly known for his brand of tea. He was a nice chap and did not muck around with wars. We will not skip over Lord Melbourne – he of the great Byron Affair and the beginnings of the Victorian Era - oversaw colonial wars and issues in Canada and Jamaica which lead to his resignation in 1841.
Enter Sir Robert Peel 1834-5 and 1841-6, interspersed with Lord Melbourne’s term. Sir Peel faced the famous Irish Potato Famine and it can be called as a foreign policy disaster that still bedevils British Prime Ministers. Because of his attempts to repeal the Corn Laws, he had to resign. Next in line was Earl Russell 1846-51 and again1865-6. but his foreign secretary, Lord Palmerston was thoroughly disliked by Queen Victoria and caused no end of troubles for Earl Russell and the Queen, in particular over the issue of Louis Napoleon’s coup d’etat in France. However, Earl Russell mainly resigned over his inability to push through further political reform bills. Then we come to the Earl of Derby 1852, 1858-9 and 1866-8, who was in and out of office all the time. The Earl of Derby had to handle the long distance issue of the Chinese Opium Wars, as well as handling the nearer Crimean War. The Opium wars were particularly hard on him, as the classical liberal wing of British society warred with the expansionist and mercantilist wing.
In the interim, Earl of Aberdeen 1852-5, was bought down by his mishandling of the Crimean War. Another Prime Minister, Viscount Palmerston 1855-8 and 1859-65, plugged in between the Earl of Derby. Lord Palmerston, one of the greatest jingoists in British history, spent his time in office mainly in foreign affairs, engaging in conflicts and wars ranging from China, India, Turkey, Greece, Afghanistan, Middle East and other parts of Asia. The Indian Mutiny happened during his watch and he got a huge amount of stick for not managing it smoothly and/or letting it happen in the first place. Benjamin Disraeli followed in 1868 and 1874-80. The only British Jewish Prime Minister, he spent most of his time on domestic reform areas, but he still had his share of foreign policy issues like the Suez Canal and the Balkan’s crisis over Russia.
This was a time of giants, and Disraeli was followed by another giant namely William Ewart Gladstone 1868-74, 1880-85, 1886 and 1892-94. Gladstone was crucified over the General Gordon of Khartoum fame issue and struggled at the end with the Irish question. Robert Gascoyne-Cecil, Marquess of Salisbury 1885-6, 1886-92 and 1895-1902 was the next prime minister intermittently, but the Boer War, which led to his resignation, marked his last stint. The Earl of Rosebery 1894-5, was in one of the intervening periods, and he had to resign over military expenditure on the imperial fleet. The next chap, Arthur James Balfour 1902-5, is famous for pouring a large amount of fuel over the Israeli/Palestinian crisis, but he resigned mainly because of a series of domestic issues. We skip Henry Campbell-Bannerman, 1906-1908, who was quite skilful in establishing good relations with Russia and moving on to the first Great War.
Herbert Henry Asquith 1908-16 took Great Britain into war and had to resign after the stalemate in the war lead to his position being untenable. David Lloyd George 1916-22 took over from him, laid the foundations of the welfare state, further reformed the House of Lords, but fell due to domestic issues, as well as charges that he was war mongering in Turkey. The next Prime Minister, Andrew Bonar Law 1922-3, ruled for only 200 odd days, and was followed by Stanley Baldwin 1923, 1924-9, 1935-7. While Baldwin did most of his work in the domestic arena, his pacifism in the face of German re-armament, and his general foreign policy created major issues during his last stint in power. James Ramsay MacDonald 1924 and 1929-35, the intervening prime minister’s first term of office met with disaster over the issue of diplomatic recognition of the Soviet Union, and in his second term, was noted as the father of appeasement with respect to Adolf Hitler. The next in line for the appeasement charge was Neville Chamberlain 1937-40, who had to resign over the second Great War.
This brought the old bulldog to power, Sir Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill 1940-5 and 1951-5. A brilliant war Prime Minister, as soon as the war was over, he and his party were turfed out because, ironically, the electorate and the returning soldiers did not think he would make a good peacetime leader. During his last term, the Iranian crisis, the Mau Mau rebellion and the Malayan emergency all sapped strength from his administration and he resigned in frustration. Clement Richard Attlee 1945-51, followed Churchill, but was voted out, partially due to the strains of the Korean War. Anthony Eden 1955-7 followed him and he was forced to resign after that disastrous and incompetent Suez War of 1956.
Harold Macmillan 1957-63 did not have major foreign policy disaster, preferring to concentrate on economic issues, as did Sir Alec Douglas-Home 1963-4 and Harold Wilson 1964-70 and 1974-6. Edward Heath 1970-4, faced some issues about the deployment of troops to Northern Ireland, but this wasn’t the reason he lost. James Callaghan 1976-9, who came in next also didn’t have any major foreign policy issues. Then came the iron lady, Margaret Thatcher 1979-90, who had Gulf War I and the Falklands War. Here is the lesson, she won. She was dropped from leadership of the conservative party for other reasons, but she won. John Major, 1990-1997 was the quintessential grey man, nothing to do with foreign policy. Which brings us neatly and rather laboriously to Tony Blair, who has jumped into foreign policy and wars. Afghanistan was a success (sort of), the war on terror is an ongoing but largely successful time, while Iraq II has been initially successful but has been a bleeding sore lately and as we have seen, Tony Blair has suffered because of his support of the USA.
What does this tell us? From what I have read, we can draw some broad based guidelines or lessons. The first is that avoiding war is a safer if duller and more risky option. Domestic policy is much harder than foreign policy and therefore, more PM’s have easily gone into wars rather than struggle with domestic policy. Second, the British public is rather easy to be whipped up into war fervour against Johnny foreigner, rather than get worked up about domestic issues. Third, there is a strong, vocal liberal/anti-war element ever present in British Society and this element can bring down governments at worst and at best injure it.
The next lesson is that the British Public does not mind taking casualties. The British Armed forces, even when suffering significant casualties, have a reputation for bravery. Casualties do not mean that the public will lose faith in their leaders. In many cases, it is the other way around, mounting casualties can cause even more bellicose reactions. The next lesson is that the Prime Ministers ignore the power of the press at their peril. While there are papers whose editorial positions are across the spectrum, there are common elements which almost all papers can agree on (as was the case with Afghanistan), but going to war or continuing the war against the press’s judgement means the British press will lead the excoriation of the Prime Minister. The final lesson for British prime ministers is “do not lose wars.” The British public can forgive many things but losing a war is definitely a strict no-no. Even Queen Victoria wrote in a letter to Arthur James Balfour, during the “Black Week” of the Boer War of 1899: "We are not interested in the possibilities of defeat; they do not exist.”
All this to be taken with a grain of salt!
(The opinion expressed herein are strictly the author's and do not reflect the positions, official or otherwise, of any firm or organisation, that the author is associated with at the present or has been in the past or may be in future. Dr Bhaskar Dasgupta, currently lives in the City of London and works there in various capacities in the Banking Sector.)
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